When the Door Is Barred
November 9, 2014
Matthew 25:1-13 “WHEN THE DOOR IS BARRED”
Life can be full of annoyances. Back in the day before cell phones and smart phones when important people always carried a beeper, one of those important men (he was a scientist from NASA) was standing in a checkout line in the grocery store. A mother and her young boy were standing behind him. All of a sudden his beeper went off, and the little boy cried out: “Watch out, mommy, that fat man is backing up!”
Ever since the spring, there has been construction work going on at the church across the street from our house, and promptly at 7 a.m., a fat little, green little cherry picker would make this piercing sound when it went either up or down, forwards or backwards, [now why does it need to beep when it goes up in the air? Is it warning low-flying birds?]. My wife and I for the first time in our lives, wished for a bazooka or a rocket launcher to disable that screaming contraption.
When I looked at the lectionary to find out what the readings were for today, it turned out that—although this is what is called “Ordinary Time” in the church year, the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost—there were eight different choices for readings! How annoying is that?
And One of them, from the book of Amos, a minor Prophet, reminded me unnecessarily that there is more to life than the minor annoyances that irritate you so badly as you are growing older and conspire to turn you inwards so that you become crabbed and crabby, a truly miserable person (like that little green cherry picker). Amos talks about the “day of the Lord,” and prophesies that “It will be darkness and not light; As when a man flees from a lion and a bear meets him, Or goes home, leans his hand against the wall and a snake bites him” (Amos 5: 18b-19). Now these are life-changing annoyances!
They remind us unnecessarily that the world is a cracked and scary place, even without us in it, we who are often plotting to do evil instead of good! The spiritual person, the person who prays—wonderfully or badly—learns to say YES to this cracked and scary place, to do as Jesus did—in the manger and on the cross: to hold, even embrace, the nonsensicalness of our existence, the beauty and the ugliness, the awesomeness plus the natural disasters, the terrible mistakes and the downright, deliberate evil-doing. One such person is Ann Voskamp, who made it her goal to write down 1,000 things she was thankful for, which she published in her book One Thousand Gifts.
In a few short weeks, we will be entering the season of Advent. We are not waiting for Jesus to be born. That’s already happened. But we may be waiting to grasp what we believe about that birth and the consequences of it. “Have this mind in you,” Paul sings in his letter to the Philippians. God entered our miserable, wonderful, often annoying, existence. He looked into the face of a Mother and Father who loved him to pieces, but he had to put up with the smell of sheep and donkeys, the cold nights and sweltering days in the desert, and all the annoyances of growing into adulthood in a time that had none of the conveniences that we today cannot do without.
And when he was an adult, he told this story which was remembered, and written down by Matthew. He told many stories like this, a parable meant to be pondered and unpacked for its many meanings:
There were five wise virgins or bridesmaids and five foolish. Their mission is to escort the bridegroom to the house of the bride and then escort both to the place of the wedding and the subsequent feast. The traditional interpretation of the passage has to do with the Second Coming, the Parousia, to hold us all in fear and faithfulness because “he will come like a thief in the night” and we’d better be ready or be sorry for all eternity. But don’t we have enough to accept and be afraid of? Allow me to suggest another interpretation in the light of much contemporary spiritual writing.
Two things disturb me about this story: 1. The foolish ones weren’t evil or criminal; they just hadn’t thought ahead. They made the unwarranted assumptions that the bridegroom would be on time and that there was oil in their lamps. They thought they had enough oil (Levine: oil is a metaphor for righteousness). How many of us grab our cell phone on the way out the door but neglect to see if its battery is low? Then when the five called foolish asked the wise ones for a little help (I mean oil), the wise ones said NO! –not your typical Christian response! Was that supposed to be tough love? They needed our choir behind them, singing vigorously: “Give me oil for my lamp, keep me burning. Give me oil in my lamp, I pray.”
Side comment for another sermon: [Maybe this “NO” is a warning that if we constantly close ourselves off—from people, from new things, from learning, from the whispers and inspirations of God—we will be closed so tight that no one can get any oil, any righteousness, any forgiveness or compassion INTO us!]. But back to the parable:
2. Second disturbing thing, when the foolish ones went to the oil merchants and bought some and came back to the wedding (note: they didn’t just give up and go home), they made a second bad assumption: they assumed they’d be let into the feast! But the door was barred, and when they knocked, the master himself took time from his dancing and came out to lecture them about who gets admission, and everyone had better stay alert, because “you know not the day nor the hour.” Harsh. No wonder Rev. Cam Miller advised his fellow priests recently to preach AGAINST Matthew at times.
This is not what Jesus does. He may say irritable or harsh words to someone—like the Syrophoenician woman whose daughter was possessed (I’m not casting my bread to the dogs), but then Jesus relents and cures her! Isn’t this the Jesus who tells another story about Yet, still, the world is cracked and bad things, terrible things, keep happening.
Bad things come in threes, we are likely to say. So I only had two parents, and I watched each of them die. So where’s the third? Was it the death of my wife’s sister, or more recently, of my friend and classmate, Fr. Bill Wiethorn? I found out he was sick from my son in law’s uncle. Bill wasn’t allowed visitors, but the hospital put me through to his ICU bedside. He told me he had pneumonia and inoperable cancer. I said I’d pray for him, but he asked me to “talk to God in my own words.” This from a man in a religion that has a prayer book for everything, like a Book of Common Prayer. There are rituals and blessings, words for marriages and funerals. Everything can be read from a book. But here was my friend, in the last days of his life, almost validating MY life by saying: “Talk to God in your own words.” Be yourself, that says to me. God loves you. You don’t have to get it right by mouthing someone else’s approved prayers. Yours are good, sufficient, marvelous, acceptable, loved. Just talk to him.
It’s what I want to say to those foolish virgins. You are on the right track. You are following the bridegroom. Sit in the dust before his door and wait for him. Then talk to him in your own words. From the wise virgins the righteous among us learn to stay righteous; when God calls you to do something, you will be ready. But for the rest of us: those who are not so righteous, who are not beyond forgetting our oil or dumping it all over our wedding suits, the foolish virgins are teachers. Here’s what they can teach us:
- When God calls, go right away. Take whatever oil you have; come as you are (I know there is another story about the man who got thrown out of the wedding because he was not dressed appropriately, but these virgins are dressed for a wedding! [Matthew 22]).
- If no one will help you when you prove inadequate for the task, seek help from those who have been there done that—like the people right here in this community. We can be a support group for each other, or we can start one if needed (as Dahlia is trying to do for single parents). I read another version of the starfish story in Dr. Tatum: a Crowd gathers and they ALL pitch in so that by the end, there are NO starfish dying on the beach! This is what Malala did, and Karen Armstrong, and those many who do TED and TEDx Talks—Ideas worth sharing!
- Then return to do the work of the Lord—which always comes down to love and compassion (1st and 2nd greatest commandments) or to Micah’s words: “Do the right; love goodness, and walk humbly with your God” (6:8).
- If the door is barred—this is important because a LOT of the great mystics, saints, contemplatives and really holy people have attested to this—if God disappears on you; if the bad news you hear and see every day on TV overwhelms you; if you get so depressed you can hardly get out of bed; if your prayers seem unanswered and tragedy and chaos dogs your days—if, in the words of the parable, you are not getting in for the feast and the bridegroom is not coming out except to load you with guilt, then sit down and wait.
- To my way of thinking, sitting and waiting means waiting on the Lord, keeping on keeping on as they way, staying with the meditation you are practicing, the volunteering you are doing, the food you are delivering, the chicken soup! the listening to others whose oil is depleted or gone. As we read in Psalm 27:14: “Wait for the Lord with courage; Be stouthearted and wait for the Lord!” Or hear in one translation of the prophet Isaiah (40:31) these words: “they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”
This world is flawed. It has lots of occasions for pain and heartbreak. If it were perfect, none of us would have reason to figure out what to do, to figure out how to cope, to offer sympathy and empathy, to bring dinners to the sick, to go to wakes and offer condolences, to wait for healing and numbing of wounds too great to bear in the present, to open up our arms and hug and kiss someone in despair.
This waiting is NOT passive, like sitting around in a bar or a football stadium waiting for something interesting to happen. No. It is a saying YES to everything that IS happening—from beepers to impolite drivers, and standing up to assist when we are inspired, prompted, moved, invited to do so.
As one contemporary writer encourages us: “The only people who pray well are those who keep praying. In the dark night, when all other practices and beliefs about God lose their meaning, keep returning to silent, contemplative prayer. It will keep you empty and ready for God’s ongoing revelation of an ever deeper love.” Translation: you’ll have room and be ready for the OIL (Rohr, Daily Meditation of 10/25/14).
As we anticipate Advent, I close with the words of Rev. Cam Miller, Episcopal Priest now living in Vermont:
“New Creation?” we scorn.
“Where is this new creation
and what good has it done?”
“Wait! Wait!” the midwife urges.
“The cervix has thinned and opened
and even now,
even right this minute,
God’s new creation is being born.
Don’t walk away.
Don’t give up.
Don’t close your mind now
when we’re so close.”
And that is when someone
with a wise and patient faith
That is when someone
with a wise and patient faith
where to look.
The New Creation
is being birthed,
it is not here yet in any kind of fullness,
but the promise
is that it has begun…somehow.
If all we expect to see when we look
is the apocalypse around us
then that is all we will see.
But if we have a notion,
that something else
we may have the eyes
to perceive it
and become a midwife too.
I think that is what this is all about.
Are we prepared to be a midwife?
Are we prepared to assist God
in her labor?
Let us pray.
Dear God, we come here as often as we can because we believe; we have hope that you are constantly plotting good, no matter what we are plotting. We come here to throw ourselves into the river of your plans, the good things you have set into motion. And if we can’t find you today, we come here to wait, and we pray with the psalmist:
I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living (Ps. 27:13)
Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and our shield. For our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name. Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you (Ps.33: 20-22).
For we know that “The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him” (Lamentations 3:25).
“For toward you, O God, my Lord, my eyes are turned; in you I take refuge; strip me not of life” (Ps. 141:8).
For Lord, to whom shall we go? In whom shall we put our trust? You have the words of everlasting life!